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In Memory of the late R. F. MacKenzie

(extract from 'State School' (1970), written by R.F. Mackenzie):

We sent our pupils for a day a week gliding, in the months when the gliding station wasn’t that busy. Some of the pupils had included this study in the work they were doing for the Duke of Edinburgh Award. For our youngsters, aiming at the Bronze Award, this meant proficiency in ground handling of gliders, launching procedures, signalling, the pre-flight cockpit check, and instrument reading and setting. It meant also five instructional flights, a knowledge of the rules of the air, and making a model glider and using it to demonstrate normal flight, the stall and the effect of trim changes.

Being under sixteen, our pupils were not permitted to go solo. On each visit to the airfield they got one flight. But they were kept busy throughout the day driving the tractor and assisting in the routine of launching. They took a responsible part in this drill, realizing that safety was involved and that the more efficiently the drill was carried out, the more the flights that would be launched. Pupils labelled ‘difficult’ in school (which sometimes means that they are not so docile as their fellows), pupils who resisted attempts to teach them quadratic equations or the exports of the Philippines and who, strangely enough, took no interest in the marital adventures of Henry VIII, sprang into lively activity when faced with the launching drill. Their instructors, members of the school staff (able glider pilots with a background of service experience, and not easily pleased), were delighted with the reactions of the pupils.

Flying was the thing. Then, when the delighted and fearful shock and thrill of the first flight was broadening into a relaxed understanding of the requirements of successful gliding, the instructors introduced the classroom work. But flying came first.

We asked the pupils to write down how they felt on their first flight. Nearly all of them were, before the trip, ‘sort of nervous’ or had ‘butterflies in my stomach’, and had the feeling of having their stomachs coming out of their mouths as they were being launched into the air. They all enjoyed the smoothness when the cable was released and they were released and they were airborne and independent of ground ties. One boy wrote, ‘It was the most exciting thing I have done. The first thing you feel when you climb into the cockpit is of being scared but when you have been reassured that it will be all right, it is better. The instructor tells how to manoeuvre the glider and then you are hauled up. Once you have released the cable it is quite a feeling to be dependent on yourself. When the glider dives you get a funny feeling but it was a very good day.’

As an English teacher I was interested to see if the pupils would be able to put vividly on paper a new a memorable experience. Most Scottish primary schools are absorbed in teaching pupils the rules of writing and they damp down or indeed quench a youngster’s delight in the bright ring of words. I have often thought about the contrast between the wooden, lifeless and timid way in which they handle written words and the confidence and enjoyment with which they handle print. I had put the contrast down to the fact that primary schools do so little art that pupils come to the secondary school without any prejudice against a paint brush. I had thought that if teachers in the primary school wearied pupils with art as much as they now do with English, then their painting would be as dull as their writing. But a distinguished Scottish poet told me that using words is quite different from using paint and, if I understood him right, that you can’t hope to use words vividly until you have served an apprenticeship in the feel and relationship and value of words, in the craft of writing. This is a question to which I hope we shall be one day able to give a clearer answer. In the meantime here is part of an account written by one of the boys:

‘After the signal was given to the winch, the glider started to move. Then it left the ground and soared into the air. The glider rose steadily, until it reached the length of the cable, the cable was released and the glider rose gracefully like a huge bird over Loch Leven. There was a wonderful view of a few islands sticking out of the mist. You thought the plane was hardly moving. It turned gently sideways towards the hill. It flew over the airfield, turned, and landed smoothly. Each of us handled the controls, and flew the glider. It was great.’

As a contrast, here are extracts from what the girls wrote. One of them, who, the instructor said, had what seemed like a natural gift for flying and handled the controls with relaxed understanding, wrote this:

‘What I found very extraordinary was how long the wire stretched which pulls the glider into the air. I never would have believed it but when I was in the air I didn’t want to go back down again.’

Another girl wrote:

‘The views were lovely. We saw swans flying overhead and also boys bringing in turnips in the fields below us.’

Back in school, the pupils learn something of the theory of flight. It is no longer a remote, academic question, how a body which is heavier than air can stay in the air for so long. The study of weather becomes relevant. If it’s your day for gliding, the approach of depressions, warm or cold fronts, the forecasting of the weather, is something intimately intertwined with your happiness. If you want to become a good glider pilot, you have to try to learn about thermals, from a few short lessons, as much as a seagull gets out of a life’s experience. And experience of gliding gives the pupils the ability to envisage the third dimension when he looks at a map. When he looks down on Fife from a thousand feet and sees Loch Leven and Kinross, roads and a railway and cars and farms and woods and a river, and the Lomond Hills strangely flat-looking from that height, he may begin to take a new, lively interest in maps, seeing them not as diagrams but as a kind of bird’s-eye view (or glider’s-eye view) of the earth beneath. And it is a wonderful experience for a fourteen-year old pupil to see a large part of his home county not as a series of snapshots taken from a bus run or a cycle run, diminishing in clarity the farther it gets from the main road, but as a whole, and to realize that this is the part of the earth’s wrinkled surface on which he has his being.

Coleridge said that is was one of the functions of poetry to let people see things freshly and with a sense of wonder. He could have said the same of education. We have to use everything that lies to our hand to tell our pupils of the earth’s wonders. Our pupils, playing with the computer, had discovered what was for them a new truth, that multiplication is merely repeated addition. Gliding has a similar effect, and after even one trip, they return to school seeing life with a new freshness. And I think that getting their heads into the clouds once in a while has helped them to put their feet more firmly on the ground.

End of extract from 'State School' by R F MacKenzie(1970)

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